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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Camelot: A Charmless Making

There is something wrong about Camelot, the new TV telling of the Arthurian Legend. 

It could be the stilted acting, it might be the anachronistic language of the script, perhaps it is the fact that Eva Green always makes me feel a little ill (I swear that woman has a touch of the fey about her), or horror or horrors could it be that the whole Arthurian Legend is now a bit tired? After all, we've been enjoying the BBC's Merlin (a kind of Arthurian Grange Hill) which is fun in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way, and Spam-a-lot is still playing in the West End, so perhaps we've just had enough of Camelot (after all, it is a silly place).

Or maybe there are bigger and better stories to be told these days. The Guardian suggested that Camelot is a sort of S Club Game of Thrones Juniors, and I agree that Game of Thrones is certainly in a different league, but surely Arthur comes before Stark? After all Malory predates Martin by 800 years or so. Yes, the tropes are a bit tired now, but they are Malory's tropes to begin with, and they speak to something true.

So what is wrong with Camelot?

For me this production never had a chance, because no matter what they do they could never be anything but a pale imitation of the Arthurian film to rule them all (no, not the bloody Hobbit films - they owe Malory too). The film I'm talking about is John Boorman's Excalibur, by my reckoning the greatest fantasy film ever made.

Excalibur realises that it is not telling a history, but a legend that is an echo of history, something that is a distillation of our collective memory. Its Anglo-Saxon knights thunder to war in Gothic armour, and celebrate their victories in Norman halls. But it is easy to forgive. It's a story filled with archetypes, the women are mother's, lovers, witches and wives; it's men mythic. And Excalbur? Well she is an emerald blade of perfection and the screen literally hums in her presence.

Fiennes may well grow into his role as Merlin, but Nichole Williams (complete with mirrored steel skullcap) is Merlin and gives a suitable inhuman performance. Jamie Campbell Bower may grow a beard, but he could never show as well as Nigel Terry how a simple man can make a great king. And Eva Green may be lovely (in a squeasy, bad-for-you sort of way), but she lacks the fierce arrogance of Helen Mirren's Morgana. 

So as I watched them ride about, roll around and generally make a lot of noise, I couldn't help hoping that the dragon's breath might rise and transform them into Excalibur instead.

You can steal the charm of making, but be careful that the magic doesn't run out.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Poor Elite

So the government is shocked and surprised that Universities want to use the new fees system to recover all the money they lost through the HE funding cuts. Most V-Cs seem to think that a charge of 7.5k to 8k would allow them to balance the books again, and many of the UKs stronger Unis think that its an opportunity to charge a prestigious 9k and effectively get an extra 1k per student to improve the student experience (after all, if they didn't students would be paying 5k more for the same old same old).

I suspect that deep down we all feel the same way about the Coalition
But the government has also attached a caveat that Unis that want to charge the maximum amount must demonstrate that they are admitting more students from poorer background and thus widening access.

I'm all for this, Universities are one of the big engines of social mobility (that's one of the reasons they are deserving of public money) - but I hate the way that the question is posed, as if Admissions Tutors were devilishly working to exclude all the poor people, racked with snooty laughter as they tossed the state school UCAS applications into the reject bin.

Well, I'm a Senior Admissions Tutor and run our Computer Science Admissions process alongside a small team of colleagues - and I deeply resent the government's tone and implication. It's disingenuous to what is one of the last truly meritocratic processes left in our country and hides what the government is actually asking Universities to do - which is to apply policies of positive discrimination.

I want to be clear, I'm not against positive discrimination, it has its place in overturning prejudice. But I also want to be clear that in this case there is no prejudice. The fact is that if you meet our standard offer then we will offer you a place, it doesn't matter who you are, what colour, age, sexuality or class, good grades will get you in. The problem happens before people get to the University, the problem is that who you are impacts on your ability to get good grades at School.

We can try and fix this problem - it involves pumping more money into the state school system, reducing class sizes and increasing the variety of education given to children. Teachers know this, they are professionals and do the best with what they are given, but I suspect that politicians don't want to acknowledge it.

We can give up and live with it - after all no matter how much money you throw in it will always be possible for the richest people in society to pay more, and thus one supposes, to get a better experience.

We can patch up the cracks and ask Universities to positively discriminate (to correct the effect rather than solve the cause) - this gives the Universities a difficult balancing job to do and also means that some students starting at the same University will be stronger than others (and of course that some weaker students will be chosen over stronger ones). Such is the nature of positive discrimination.

Elitism and meritocracy are unavoidable linked - especially since in a national context it is impossible to guarantee everyone the same opportunity to demonstrate their merit - so there's a good debate to be had here. But we're not going to get it if the government continues to dodge the issue by implying that University Admissions are the problem that needs to be fixed. They aren't.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Chasing EdShare: In Pursuit of a Usable Teaching and Learning Repository

The last five years or so has been an incredible time to be involved in e-learning. We've seen the rise and demise of the Digital Native, the flight and delight of students and academics to Web 2.0 systems, and the attempted murder of the VLE (we now know that reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated). In our work in the Learning Societies Lab we've played our own small part in that dramatic change through the radical overhaul of teaching and learning repositories, the rejection of traditional Learning Objects and the promotion of Open Educational Resources (OER).

The result of that effort is an unassuming piece of software called EdShare, itself an extension to EPrints (one of the world's most successful research repositories). EdShare was funded by JISC through a number of projects and is used by the University of Southampton for its own teaching and learning repository, but its also the software behind the HUMBox, is being used by the OU, will be the repository for the BLOODHOUND Supersonic Car project, and is in place or being planned for at least another ten institutions.

But the technology itself is nothing special, it's the ideas and the philosophy behind it that make it work and I thought it was worth explaining why EdShare looks the way it does.

What is a Repository For?

Our key revelation in developing EdShare came several years ago when (after a few false starts) it became obvious that the traditional approach (digitally packaged teaching resources described using Learning Object metadata) was not working for everyday teachers. The overheads were huge, the upload process complex and the benefits to the people required to do the work (teachers and lecturers) unclear. This was 2007 and we asked ourselves how come people were prepared to upload photos and videos to emerging public sites like Flickr and Youtube, but they couldn't be bothered to share their teaching resources. What do those sites offer that teaching and learning repositories don't?

The problem was that we were translating the research repository model to learning resources, and it didn't fit. Research repositories are about archiving things that are at the end of their lifecycle, users like this archiving service - it's valuable to them. They get a safe, permanent, official and above all highly visible home for their precious work. It's a clear gain for a researcher, and means that they will make the effort to upload.

But who wants to archive their teaching resources? Teaching resources are living things that breath with the passing of each academic year, they evolve and can be rough around the edges. Archiving them is the last thing you want to do!

For inspiration we examined those Web 2.0 sites more carefully and asked ourselves the question - what services do they offer?

We came up with three key things, and decided to make these the underpinning services of our new repository. Based on these services we designed a number of extensions to EPrints that transforms it from an archiving repository to a living-breathing learning and sharing system.


The first thing we noticed was that all barriers to uploading had to go - and that includes all that complex Learning Object metadata. It's nice to have, but the main service is to give people an online storage space, and to allow them to see their work in the browser, describing that work is (at best) of secondary importance. That inline browser view simultaneously turns the repository into a social media platform, whilst also negating the major need for most of the metadata - why read about the resource when you can see it right in front of you?

To make this a reality we implemented an inline preview tool that uses a whole bunch of behind the scenes converters to make whatever you upload visible. It manages images, audio, video, pdfs and (crucially) MS Office files like Word and Powerpoint. Seeing is believing, imagine how god-awful YouTube would be if you had to download every video you wanted to see and mess around installing codecs before you could watch it.


Secondly we decided that the system should allow people to manage their resources in the way that they see fit - rather than requiring them to package them up in predetermined ways. This means being open about what can be uploaded, but also means giving people mechanisms to organise it once its uploaded.

To enable this we implemented free tagging and collections. Collections allow people to create a list of resources and give them a name and a description. In return they get a decent presentation page and a url that they can circulate or stick on their web page. Tags are in effect a kind of open-ended public collection, but they are also easy and familiar.


The final service is to help build community by putting the people back into the repository. This doesn't have to be extreme, it doesn't mean reinventing Facebook, instead you can build community through the sharing mechanisms of the repository itself by simply providing a profile page that gathers together all of one person's efforts in the repository, and making sure that uploaders are aware of the activity (the attention metadata) around their items.

We created a profile system (called MePrints) that gathers together all of the information about a user in one place. The profile acts as both a homepage for users and as an identity page for others who get to see who this person is through their activity in the repository. Simple profile widgets such as an event feed show users what activity is happening around their resources, and giving people feedback and encouragement is the best way to keep them engaged.

The EdShare Philosophy

Perhaps the main way to view what we did with EdShare is to see it as an attempt to create a system that actually is valuable to users, rather than the institution. That doesn't mean that the institution doesn't see value - enough to fund the thing for a start - but if users don't benefit then they wont come, no matter how many times you build it.

EPrints Services now offer EdShare as one of their supported packages and the software itself is available as Open Source, but there are still challenges ahead and EdShare is really just a start. Once we have people adding and sharing content then we need to ensure that others can find it easily, that they can repurpose it, and that the act of repurposing - we call it remixing - is known to the original authors so it reinforces community and leads to further engagement.

We also have to deal with the complex ecology of repositories that is evolving - what is the relationship between the institutional repository and the VLE, what about iTunesU or community repositories? At Southampton we are exploring this by looking at how EdShare sits alongside Blackboard, and by using EdShare as a platform to promote content into iTunesU (so we view EdShare as a working, but transparent, learning content system and ITunesU as a showcase site for the best of the Universities learning material).

So if you are considering creating a teaching and learning repository for your institution then I wish you the best of luck. But remember, sharing is good, but altruism alone wont build your repository. To make it work, you have to make it useful.

You can read more about EdShare in the following pubs:

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How To Vote

So later this year the UK will go to the polls for a referendum on changing our voting system. It will be the first national referendum since 1975. It will also be a massive waste of time and money.

Now if we were proposing changing the voting system to something with real constitutional bite - like the Single Transferable Vote (STV, a form of proportional representation) - we should have a referendum. The STV would really change politics in the UK. Because votes are cast into a pool of candidates it breaks the direct link between a single voter and their MP, and because it better reflects the true split of the national vote it would mean more MPs for minority parties and thus increase the likelihood of coalition government. By the way, if you want a vote system primer you could do worse than the Electoral Reform Society (not really impartial, but I forgive them :-)

But we're not being asked to decide on STV. Instead what we have proposed is the Alternative Vote system (AV). The AV system is really just a modest improvement on First Past the Post (FPTP). The advantages are that no candidate is elected with less than 50% support, it also reduces the need for tactical voting because if a voters first choice is eliminated (because they don't have enough votes on the first pass) then their vote automatically moves to their second choice.

So why am I against a referendum? It's because AV is an absolute no-brainer. It improves our current system with no adverse effects, and no real implication for our system of government. The government should introduce AV through normal parliamentary process. A referendum is a waste of money.

Except, unbelievably, there is a 'No' campaign. Their arguments are interesting as a study of the way in which you can argue from a weak position using rhetorical tricks. Let's take a look at them:

A screen shot of the NOtoAV argument
1) "AV breaks the principle of one person one vote, because supporters of fringe parties end up having their vote counted several times while supporters of mainstream parties only have their vote counted once" - this is wrong, and plays on a lack of understanding of how the AV algorithm works. In AV there are multiple rounds of voting and in each round everyone's vote is counted. Its just that some people's vote changes, and others do not. Nobody ends up with more votes than anyone else.

2) "Under AV the candidate that comes in third place can end up winning." - this is misleading and when properly expanded it becomes clear that it is nonsensical. The candidate that would have come third under FPTP can certainly end up as the winner under AV, but it's equally true to say that under FPTP the candidate that finishes in third place under AV will end up winning. This argument therefore presupposes that FPTP is the right system.

3) "People have a right to know where their vote goes" - yes they do. And that has nothing to do with the voting system. They will know equally well under AV as with FPTP. Making clearly true assertions is a nice way to make your argument seem reasonable, but it only actually helps if it helps differentiate between the options.

4) "Voters themselves should decide who the best candidate is, not the voting system." - this is a false dichotomy, voters always use the voting system to jointly decide who wins, there is no option where the voting system does not determine the winner. FPTP is as guilty as this as AV. Many MPs have been elected with a minority of votes under FPTP because the voting system has yielded that result. Oxymoronic statements are not helpful.

5) "AV is a politician's fix, taking power away from voters and allowing the Liberal Democrats to choose the government after each election. The only vote that really counts under AV is Nick Clegg's." - wow, where did that come from? It's simply not true, and is clearly designed to play to certain fears (including that attempt to link AV with politicians - not the most popular group at the moment!). AV is a form of improved FPTP, it will not result in increased likelihood of coalition (presumably what they are referring to).

6) "Our current tried and tested voting system delivers clear outcomes and everyone's vote is equal." - see point 3 above. This statement is also true of AV.

7) "One person, one vote is the fairest way to elect an MP and the most democratic way to choose a government." - again this is also true of AV (each person still ends up with 1 vote). I assume they are trying to reinforce point 1 above.

8) "AV is complicated and expensive. Only three countries use the complicated system - Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea - and Australia has compulsory voting to make sure people turn up." - saying complicated twice doesn't make it true, and trying to create a connection between Australian compulsory voting and AV is cheap and misleading (there is no evidence to suggest that AV is a cause for that law). AV isn't complicated. Most children can list their preferences, I suspect many adults will have retained the same skill. This also ignores the many other types of elections that use AV (including USA mayoral elections, Irish presidential elections and many trade union elections).
It's as easy as ABC!
9) "AV would also be expensive, requiring councils to spend more time and money on vote counting, which would increase your council tax." - at last, something that is partially true. although I still think this is misleading. AV would be more expensive that FPTP but its not clear to me that it would be radically more expensive or time consuming. Australia still seems to manage the count in one night for example. Cost is a consideration, but its not a deal breaker. After all, not holding an election would be cheaper, but we still all seem to think its worth having one.

10) "AV is a big change, so you need to make sure that you have read the small print before voting on 5 May." - why is moving to AV a big change exactly? You haven't made this case, so please don't pretend that you have. And what's this small print that you are mentioning? Can it be a negative reference to make people afraid (see 'complicated' from point 8).

I hate all this weaseling around, it's all so much obfuscation and sophistry. I like a good debate as much as the next person, but there has to be something to debate about. The danger with this referendum is that it will have nothing to do with the voting system, and everything to do with the current political context. Are the Conservatives using it to gerrymander constituency boundaries? Does a vote for AV help or hinder a greater goal for proportional representation?

If we had the balls we'd make this a referendum on AV vs. STV - those are the two best systems for delivering either singular or consensus government. Even better let's have our cake and eat it. Use AV for MPs and STV for the Lords. That way we get strong government with a check and balances second house that represents the popular vote.

Other than the Greeks, Sumerians, Indians, a smattering of other Europeans and arguably the Americans, we bloody well invented democracy. Surely it's about time we got it right :-/

Thursday, December 30, 2010

In Defence of the Academy

Given that we are no longer to spend public money on higher education the new deal for students is progressive and better than their current financial arrangements - but goodness that misses the point! The thing that we all seem to have forgotten is that there is no given and that the privatisation of higher education is not the only way forward. I've seen to much energy over the last few weeks spent debating the deal, and not enough considering the principle. I think we have forgotten something as a country - the Academy needs defending.

It starts with money. Education should not be about money, but one of the loudest arguments about moving from public to personal financing of education is that graduates earn more money because of their degrees and should therefore pay for them.

But this is not true - it may seem odd, but this is a case of mistaken cause and effect. Let us imagine a company that took the top performing 40% of its workforce and gave them a special training day. Then imagine that the company turned around and said that the employees needed to pay for the day, because they were the ones earning the most money. That's what we're doing to students. Putting the top 40% of school performers through the HE system and then making them pay for being the top 40% earners on the other side. Many of these students would have earned equally impressive salaries working their way up through a company, and in fact some of them may have taken a financial hit from taking their degree (for example, would be small business owners who become nurses).

Of course a degree confers advantages, and for some people that will mean more money, but this is not universally true. A degree may open up a specialist career, it may be personally fulfilling, it may even make you a better person - but it will not necessarily make you money (especially when considered over a lifetime of earning - three of four years of zero income is a lot to overcome).

Even if it does, even if - as a direct result of your education - you earn more money than you would have without it, the government gets it back through taxing that increased earnings. There simply is not a financial case to be made.

But hang on - if a degree is not linked to earnings - then why are we told that its so important that people go to University and get a degree, what about this whole 'knowledge economy' thing?

Well Higher Education is linked to wealth, just not at the personal level. The whole society benefits from HE, your degree doesn't make you money, it makes the country money. Stepping back from the individual you can see that having highly educated people in society creates new opportunities - it builds whole new sectors. While an individual may become a big fish without their own degree, a HE system creates the seas in which they can swim. I am not a mechanical engineer but I benefit from the tax paid by large engineering firms such as Rolls Royce and BAE Systems, and the value to the country extends beyond taxation - I didn't study medicine but I have benefited on countless occasions from others who have, I am not a lawyer, but law graduates have helped create a stable system in which I can live.

On balance when you get a degree it is the country that benefits financially rather than you.

A society that has abandoned Higher Education has abandoned any aspirations of real value.

But I started by saying that education should not be about money. Steven Schwartz - writing in the THE - makes a nice point about the tension in HE between short term and long term goals (training for a job vs. an education for life). Training is all about setting yourself up for a career but education is something else, education is about enriching life (your own and others) through awareness and understanding. To think that education is an end goal is hubris, it is a process, and the Academy is a community of learners. That is why research and teaching go so naturally together - the Professors are learning too.

A strong Academy adds vibrancy and momentum to our society as well as our economy. It brings richness to all areas of public life and reminds us that as a civilisation we are still learning together. It gives us public ownership of knowledge and ideas, and provides intellectual analysis that holds the powerful to account. At best the Academy is not only a cornerstone of society, but it is a key way to improve that society and to expand it's horizons. A society that has abandoned Higher Education has abandoned any aspirations of real value.

Britain is very lucky to have a world class Higher Education System. We are second only to the US, a country five times our size, in the number of our Universities in the world top 200. Our HE system adds incalculable value to our country and our culture.

So as we continue to debate the rights and wrongs of tuition fees, graduation taxes and student dissent, let us bear in mind that while in the short term it may be money that excites, frightens or motivates us, in the longer term our happiness and security as a country depend on deeper and more meaningful qualities.

I am deeply disappointed with those representatives that voted to privatise education under cover of cost cutting, with no real mandate from the people, and no proper discussion of the consequences.

Shame on you. You have made our country a poorer place.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Rise of the Other Web

Isn't the Web great? Isn't it crazy and anarchic, vibrant and wild, unpredictable, awesome and thoroughly marvelous? Well it has been, but there is no guarantee that it will stay that way.

I've been working with and researching Hypertext for nearly fifteen years. The Hypertext systems that I studied for my PhD were alternative contemporaries of the early Web - based on a desktop model and inter-operating applications. But since that time we've seen the Web take Hypertext away from the desktop and make it global. The Web we have built is democratic and open; anyone can publish, and most importantly anyone can link. For profit, for criticism, for fun, for ill, the technologies of the Web do not judge or distinguish.
there is a new trend that threatens the democratic and egalitarian nature of the Web...
For a while there we all went a bit Web loopy, remember Microsoft's incredible about turn when they discovered the Internet and tried to turn your desktop into a Web browser? And of course there is the current crop of Web Applications, point your browser at and it turns into a collaborative text editor.

But there is a new trend that threatens the democratic and egalitarian nature of the Web. It plays to consumerism and relies on technical naivety. It is the App Store.

I must concede that the Apple App Store is brilliantly executed. Apple weren't the first to think of making a library of downloadable components but they were the first to make it truly usable and in the process defined a whole new vocabulary for everyday users. 'There's an App for That' is now a part of popular culture and I admire it enough that we are borrowing the whole meme for some of our own systems.

So Apps are great for extending the functionality of a device but the worrying trend is for information providers to use mobile Apps to encircle information and provide it to you neatly packaged, but crucially outside of the Web and all its egalitarian mechanisms. This trend is set to continue as providers realise that Apps include a handy micro-payments system that means they can charge for content again. You can almost hear the sound of old business models being wheeled out and firing up their antiquated boilers.

To some extend this is positive, after all professional journalists and artists are all part of a healthy society, and we need to find ways of supporting their work. But I worry that the commercial pressure to do this will create a generation of isolated tools that take but do not give back. The App model has been so commercially successful that Apple is threatening to roll it out to their MacOS platform, and what Apple does today, Microsoft will do in five years time, and if that happens this kind of control could well become the norm across all of our computing devices.

We should be very nervous about the impact of all of this on the Web. In the nineties it was the digital home of geekdom, but its got a lot more interesting since everyone else joined the party. It would be a shame to go back.

Tim Berners-Lee highlights this problem in his latest Scientific American article (amongst other concerns with Net Neutrality and Openness):

"Other companies are also creating closed worlds. The tendency for magazines, for example, to produce smartphone “apps” rather than Web apps is disturbing, because that material is off the Web. You can’t bookmark it or e-mail a link to a page within it. You can’t tweet it. ... But as we saw in the 1990s with the America Online dial-up information system that gave you a restricted subset of the Web, these closed, “walled gardens,” no matter how pleasing, can never compete in diversity, richness and innovation with the mad, throbbing Web market outside their gates."

His point is that the 'Other' Web created by the App model is not a Web at all. Just the opposite - it is isolated, singular, and barren in comparison. Cartoonist Hugh Macleod makes the same point more bluntly:

The challenge for computer scientists (or should that be Web Scientists) is to work out how to work the benefits of the App Store into the open web, thus protecting it from the closed model. This should probably include the quality of the user experience (HTML5 may address some of this) and the need for an efficient micro-payment model has never been so pressing. 

But perhaps we should also challenge some of our assumptions - for example, the web browser may not be the only portal onto the wonderful web world, there may be a place for more specific applications that play nicely and use Web standards in a broader web ecology, downloadable Apps that are URI addressable, and which switch you seamlessly from one App to another.

Come to think of it,  that sounds a lot like good old fashioned Open Hypermedia - perhaps History will be kinder than we all expected :-)

Friday, September 24, 2010

IPhone 4. Slightly Better. Again.

About a fortnight ago I managed to wrestle a shiny new iPhone 4 out of the University. It's a long and frankly uninteresting story full of needless hoop jumping and energy-sapping effort. Suffice to say that I fought hard for this little device.

Two years ago I wrote about why the iPhone 3G was so enormously important. This was a device that wasn't just great to own and use, it redefined the standards for a smart phone, and laughed hysterically at the embarrassed naked emperors of the day. Apple was quite right to proclaim that it changed everything. It did.

And now here we are with a shiny new device. So does it change everything again?

Well no. But let's be honest, the opportunity has passed, in 2007 PDA phones were terribly neglected pieces of junk that only a nerd would love. In 2010 the world is awash with smart looking devices. Changing the game means bringing in new players, and Apple is no longer head and shoulders above the crowd.

But this is still an incredible phone, and in my view - if you set aside the selling of one's soul to Apple - the best device of its kind.

It's more responsive, faster and multi-tasking means app switching is almost instant; the camera is now good enough to replace your everyday automatic, and the HD video means that you can ebay that Flip. Best of all the screen is a thing of consummate beauty - a seriously lovely display that is bright, detailed and vivid. For an old 3G user those differences are definitely worth the upgrade.

However, you may have seen this brilliant video about the iPhone vs. the HTC EVO (NSFW). It's funny, but utterly misses the point. The reason the iPhone is the best phone is that it has the best designed user experience, and at the end of the day it doesn't matter if other phones have bigger screens or better cameras, it doesn't matter whether more things are possible, what matters is that it does what it does fantastically well. My advice for those other manufacturers is step away from the feature list, put down the soldering iron and the bag of bits, and take a long hard look at how nice your device is to actually live with.

This is what Apple realised with the iPhone, and it's why this Devil Phone is still my favourite device. Quite simply, it makes you smile.